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S E P T E M B E R   1 9 9 5

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THE LATHER

"20 Mule Team Boraxo . . . Cleans Dirty Hands"

by David Barber



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On the tin stowed under the upstairs sink
The mule team circulates in silhouette:
Yeoman hand-scrub of workingmen and sons
Going back to before his father was born.

And so he pictures vast bleached dunes
Shimmering to the vanishing point,
The chalky powder heaped in mounds
And hauled to the city by wagon train

To meet demand, a grand procession.
So let tar bleed from telephone poles,
Let engine blocks ooze rainbow slicks
And bike chains jam with caked-up gunk--

He's heard his father say one scoop will cut
Through any crap, no matter what,
Just work the lather good, keep at it.
He's fallen into rhythm now, a little remote,

A little dreamy: the team marches round
The tin like ants, his wrists turn and turn
In a reaming motion, and his head spins
To think of all the pitch-black hands

Squelching away at this dinner hour,
Filling washbasins with oily rivers.
And now his suds froth even darker.
His skin's on fire. He feels certain

The storied mines can't last forever:
The dunes will dwindle into moon dust,
The mules will litter the desert floor
With hollow skulls. He knows in his bones

He's turning into the kind of upstart
Who never misses a chance to flout
A father's orders about what not to touch
Or take apart. In the fogging mirror

He sees himself far older, doubled over
Fiendish smears that won't rinse out
(Some industrial taint? Indelible ink?)
Faithfully, furiously, though he scours.



David Barber is the assistant poetry editor of The Atlantic. His first book of poems, The Spirit Level, was awarded the 1995 Terrence Des Pres Prize.
Copyright © 1995 by David Barber. All rights reserved.
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